Monday, January 13, 2014

Guilty Until Proven

Right now as I sit in my jacuzzi tub writing this blog it seems yesterday was a lifetime ago. My chest cold is breaking up and I have more voice than I did yesterday. In hinesight as irritating as it was and as stressfull as it seemed, here I am safe and warm at home.  Like most things in life I spent a lot of wasted time being upset over something that never happens. 
I woke up yesterday thinking of Shari Lewis as a "charlie horse" in my leg sent me shooting out of bed. I couldn't tell if I was just exhausted from the shows the day before or sick.  Turned out I was both. Coughing and foggy headed,  it wasn't until I tried to order breakfast that I realized I had almost no voice.  I was facing a long day of travel after a long day of performances, proceeded by a difficult load in and set up of "The Two and Only" at a theatre just outside Boston. 
To "help" the theatre I rode with John to the airport so they only had  to pay for one limo ride not two. It meant sitting at the airport three hours more than necessary, but I knew there would be a bar with the football games on TV somewhere at the terminal. 
Finally it is time to go through security; I proceed to my gate so I can finally go home. I notice on my boarding pass I have been pre-screened by the TSA.  Because I agreed to share certain travel information with the TSA I am what they call a "trusted flier".  Although you can always be randomly chosen to go through a complete check, I am usually allowed to go through security with my shoes and jacket on and do not have to take my computer out of its case.  Like the old days before 9/11.  In most airports the Pre screening is an entirely different line of machines.  
I get in the only security line that leads to my gate and ask if this is where they do the pre-screening. The checker is a little irritated at the question. He fumbles for a laminated 5x7 card under his podium and hands it to me. "Give this to the agent". On the card it says that I am a trusted flier and I don't have to take off my shoes etc.. etc.  But wait there's more.
As my carry on case goes through the xray, I walk through the metal detector to have the TSA agent sharply tell me to remove my shoes. I hold up my card like one would a cross to a vampire, she hisses and looks away as I walk through. 
Of course my carry-on, the one with "three heads" inside is stopped by the xray gorilla. This is Boston, I get it. They have seen their share of terrorism, and I would expect they would want to check carefully.  It happens most of the time I travel. So like most times, I go into my travel routine. 
When the x-ray gorilla looks up to see who is waiting on that case, I catch his eye. "Puppets" I say to him.  He responds by calling over another officer to look at the screen.  They whisper, and point at the screen tracing outlines on the monitor. They look over at me.  "Puppets, gentlemen, Puppets...I am a ventriloquist." Of course as I hear the raspy morning voice of Tom Waits come out of my mouth, I wonder if anyone would believe that I make a living with that sound.  Then I say something I might not have said given another take at this scene.  I said, "I'm on the trusted flier list if that makes a difference." Obviously it did....but not in a positive way. 
Monkey number 2 walks over to me and says "Hold out your hands palms up."  I comply to the request and realize it is perfect body language for "What the Fuck?" 
He proceeds to swab my palms with the wand detector and jam the swab into a machine that beeps and says, "You know that pre-screening only applies to your person not your luggage. We are going to have to do some more tests on that case." He hauls it out of the side door of the x-ray machine with the same care a wrecking ball might have for an old building.  
None of this is unfamiliar to me, I must go through it 35% of the time I travel.  I start my speech about how they are fagile and vauable insturments as he bangs the case on the metal surface of the chemical inspection machine. He begins to open the case lid side down which will cause the puppets to fall out. I say, "It opens the other side up."  He virtually slaps my hands away when I instinctively try to help him turn it right side up.
"Do not touch that case till I have cleared it. Do you understand?" Okay... now I sense a little attitude. 
He opens the case and jams his hands down the side.  "There are some delicated controls on these puppets, I would appreciate it if you would be carefull." There is no response as he pulls the black cloth off Bob's face. TImes past this would be the end of it.  Like the guy said recently in a similar encounter with the TSA "What are you screening for, Puppets?" 
Instead, the agent grabs the wand and scrapes it across Bob's face.  Since he has been newly painted I cringe at that sight. 
He sticks the swab into the machine and I hear the sound of a dot matix printer on crack. A 6 inch strip of rolled paper is spit out the front of the machine.  
This isn't the first time that has happened.  Once in Miami the TSA agent swabbed the handel of my case and the machine did the same thing. Back then the guy looked at the read out and said, "Do you have a heart condition or take blood pressure medicine" I said no and asked why. It sounded like the set up to a joke,  "Do you have a heart condition? No... good cause what I am about to tell you would kill you if you did." Seems that nitrates in heart medicene will set off the machine even if very small amounts are detected.  That TSA agent said the amount was not enough to worry with and he said that if a sky cap touched that handel just after he had taken a pill then it would be enough to show up.  He let me go on my way a little more informed than before.
So having been in this situation before I was not concerned. That case and that face had not been touched by anyone but me. I was not hiding anything and just wondered what they had detected. When the lady supervisor was called over I said, "What did it hit on?" She got very third grade teacher on me, "It could have been many things. Things that are a threat and things that are not a threat, we are going make that determination." It meant they would have to take everything out of that case and have a look. I said once again that it was delicate stuff and please be careful.  I felt I was already a terrorist in their eyes and a consideration of gentleness was not in the cards. 
They took all the guys and out ran them through the x-ray individually and while they were starring like zombies to the sky I was searched and frisk.  I had to take off my shoes, my belt, my sweater. They took a swab of my foot. 
After huddling around the x-ray machine for a few minutes the guy comes up and says, "Can't let you on the plane with this case."  When I asked why they wouldn't tell me. The options were to go back to the counter and check the case, leave the case at security where it would be disposed of or... not fly today.  Obvioulsy none of the options were acceptable to me.  When I explained once again how these insturments might be damaged if they were checked they had no other solution that would allow me to continue my day with the possiblity of seeing that case again.  I played my final card.  
"Look I know that even blood pressure medicene will set off that machine.  That puppet was recently painted and you probably got a hit on something in the oil based paint.  It is really a large enough amount that could cause any danger?"
There is another huddle.  They pass the read out to each other, glance at Bob looking very much like the decapatated head that he was.  Then the original guy came back and tossed one of the black towels into my case. I said, "If I can't fly today, at lease let me pack the case back up myself." He walked away.  I wasn't sure what I was going to do I just wanted out of that area and away from the Guest-stop-O TSA. Once I finished packing up the supervisor came up and said, "You're free to fly with your "intruments" today." There was a tinge of irony in the word.  After all that...just a dismissive, be on your way. I got to the gate and FaceBooked a status that suggested that the Boston TSA could kiss my ass.  I doubt they will, but they sure inspected my ass enough. 
I might have yelled and screamed if my voice was 100%.  I doubt it would have ended as positively as it did had I made a scene.  
So TSA I get it.  You are there for my protection.  I know it is a boring and menial job, but I am glad you are there on the front line.  But...The fact is if you swab a Rembrant oil painting with that wand of yours it would probably make the chemical trace machine go crazy.  I suspect that the varnish on the surface of a violin would do the same thing. But...would you consider even for a moment that these things would be a threat to anyone's safety.  We are all humans here... you can make a common sense decision and perhaps that is what you finally did.  But I feel like if I had not spoken out, I would have been turned away. 
As you were,


P. Grecian said...

Well that's more than too bad. Damn. Seems to me sometimes that, when people are given the responsibilities that the TSA agents are given, they turn into mega-bullies, and we simply have no recourse, or we wind up at Gitmo clipped to a car battery. :-(

Anonymous said...

Jay, I enjoyed your report but you finish on a more positive note than the agents deserve. That entire episode could have been handled in a more professional and satisfactory manner. What you went through was unacceptable, not to mention the attitude of the agents. They obviously need more training--a lot more. And your assumption about the value of TSA agents is in my opinion over-stated. Regrettably, I doubt they add much to the safety of air travel, but I won't go into the reasons I say that here. As a side note, this is one small sample of why I am conservative in my politics. Large government breeds bureaucratic contempt. I want the size of the federal government trimmed. Just before reading your story, I had read an article about government plans to enter our homes under the guise of energy management. Perhaps it was the basis for my reacting to the behavior you endured by TSA agents a bit more strongly than the average reader. But, I did enjoy your telling of the events. Tom Hibbard